The Scraps of the Books: The Science Fiction of Cordwainer Smith

“The story is simple. There was a boy who bought the planet earth. We know that, to our cost. It only happened once, and we have taken pains that it will never happen again.” These words begin one of the most surreal science fiction novels of all time, Norstillia by Cordwainer Smith. Along with The Quest of Three Worlds and a sprinkling of short stories that appeared from the 1940s to the ’60s, Norstrilia represents the output of one of the most original minds to ever contribute to the genre.

Cordwainer Smith was the pen name chosen by Paul Linebarger. Science fiction was a genre that American academia often scoffed at at the time, and Linebarger taught Asiatic politics at Duke University. He also held a position with the CIA as an expert on psychological warfare. He considered his most outstanding achievement to be a tactic employed during the Korean War, allowing Chinese soldiers to surrender without losing face and avoiding bloodshed. Perhaps his choice to write under a pseudonym reflected a desire to protect his professional reputation, but it also contributed to the mystery and mythos surrounding his work.

With such an unusual background, it is not surprising that the stories that flowed from his pen turned out to be something special. In Smith’s hands, science fiction became a sublime art in a way that should be the envy of many serious-minded fictioneers today.

Perhaps his peculiar nom de plume reveals something of his approach. “Cordwainer” is an obsolete word for a maker of leather shoes. And “Smith” evokes both the forge and the everyman of our society. His stories often mingle the ancient and futuristic. They resemble fables, recasting myths and legends from other cultures in a science fiction milieu. But Smith’s stories always enchant us with their warmly human touch. We feel the struggles of the robotic scanner Martel, who has given up his humanity to live in the depths of space. And we are touched with the gentle, altruistic madness of Elaine, who has been programmed to fulfill a need that does not exist.  

I still remember the first story I read by him as a boy, Alpha Ralpha Boulevard. I recall lying in bed that night in the cool spill of air from the window, trying to understand the profound effect it had on me. It was an odd tale, set in a future so distant our own time is barely a memory. Its opening sentences capture us and draw us into the world he created. “We were drunk with happiness in those early years. Everybody was, especially the young people. These were the first years of the Rediscovery of Man, when the Instrumentality dug deep in the treasury, reconstructing the old languages, the old cultures, even the old troubles…I myself was the first man to put a postage stamp on a letter after fourteen thousand years.”

As we enter into Smith’s dreamworld, three people journey up a ruined causeway to speak with an ancient computer that can predict the future. Unfortunately, the computer’s words turn out to be ambiguous, and the excursion ends in tragedy. Alpha Ralpha Boulevard was different than anything else I had read up to that point. It invaded my youthful dreams and resonated like a half-forgotten poem.

Years later, rediscovering him as an adult, I become something of an aficionado. I haunted used bookstores and libraries. I made special orders and plucked up my courage to try a new-fangled technology called the internet to track down still more material.

Cordwainer Smith’s science fiction presents readers with an incomparable experience. What other writer would describe faster than light travel by translating Rimbaud’s The Drunken Boat? Or who would include a talking monkey in homage to the Chinese classic Journey to the West? Moreover, apart from the literary allusions, the sheer exuberance of his imagination overwhelms us. Browsing his pages, we find giant sick sheep that dispense immortality, men who have surgically altered to live in the vacuum of space, and drones programmed for ethnic cleansing.

When we explore the entire scope of Smith’s work, we find a consistent, if strange and disturbing future-history playing out before us. Its outlines are familiar but filtered through his unique mythmaking imagination transcend boundaries of genre, becoming something timeless and thought-provoking.

These stories tell the struggle of humanity to rebuild and go out among the stars after a devastating global war. Human beings are often genetically modified to survive in alien environments. Smith lightly steps over the ethical implications of this theme to focus on the human cost of such transformations.

During this period, an organization comes to control humanity, known as the Instrumentality of Mankind. Although we might consider The Instrumentality a totalitarian regime, it is not precisely a government. Its aims are the practical material survival of the species. People no longer have names; they are assigned numbers and even occupations at birth. And though the Instrumentality controls all aspects of human life from birth to death, Smith’s work resists easy categorization as dystopian. Eventually, the Instrumentality itself realizes that its program is stultifying, that in seeking to make humanity happy and safe, it has created drones with meaningless lives. It begins to mine the past in an effort known as the Rediscovery of Man. It reintroduces languages, cultures, and even dangers in an effort to strengthen the human race.

As an Orthodox Christian, one aspect of Smith’s work fascinates me more than others. Linebarger converted to the Anglican faith during his years of writing science fiction. This resulted in the introduction of covert references to a form of Christianity kept alive by the disenfranchised members of society. There are several mentions of the Scrap of the Book, apparently a portion of the gospels, and images of a man nailed to two pieces of wood.

One of the most intriguing and heartbreaking aspects of Smith’s work is the notion that genetically modified animals will be used as slave labor to free humanity. The struggles of these underpeople, as Smith calls them, for dignity forms the basis of many of the
stories in his oeuvre.

There are even hints that the underpeople themselves are now more in control of humanity’s destiny than the Instrumentality. In a telling passage, the hero of Norstrilia meets the E’Telekeli, an underperson who has taken on the mission of influencing the lives of his creators. “We’re not ending time,” said the great man-bird. “We are just altering the material conditions of Man’s situation for the present historical period. We want to steer mankind away from tragedy and self-defeat. Though the cliffs crumble, we want Man to remain.”

Although less well-known than the other writers of the Golden Age of Science Fiction, Cordwainer Smith stands head and shoulders above the celebrated writers of that time. His mythmaking imagination turned pulp stories of robots and space travel into profound literary explorations of human destiny. And the struggles of his non-human characters are poignant reminders of the slavery and injustice that still exists in our world today.

The Scraps of the Books, copyright, Jonathan Golding 2021. All rights reserved.

Cover art courtesy of Corby Waste. Find more of his art on the blog The Remarkable Science Fiction of Cordwainer Smith.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: